by Maddie Grounds and Olivia Bridge Immigration Advice Service.
Immigration detention continues to embody systemic injustices, human rights abuses and shocking mistreatment towards migrants and refugees seeking to claim asylum in the UK. Despite the holding of detainees in immigration removal centres (IRC’s) being labelled as a supposed ‘last resort’ – if and only when the government expects migrants to be deported in the near future – the abysmal speed in the processing of asylum applications and institutionalised neglect result in detainees being held for an indefinite amount of time. As such, fewer than half of all detainees were deported last year, with only a quarter receiving a verdict on their asylum claim within six months.
Now, with the UK plummeting into an unprecedented period of stagnation amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, a ban on travel restrictions and strict social distancing measures has underlined the financial incoherence of holding detainees who cannot be deported.
Currently, it costs £95 a day to detain someone, more than twice the meagre £37.75 allowance asylum seekers are entitled to if they are able to lodge their claim from outside an IRC. Considering a high number of detainees are later released back into the UK anyway, it would make far better sense – and save considerable amount of taxpayer’s money in the process – if the Home Office processed all asylum claims from outside the confines of detention, in turn allowing individuals to await a verdict on their claim while attempting to integrate into UK life. This is the model which detention is supposed to follow, yet IRCs have leapt from a last resort to a common practice. Consider that capacity has rocketed from 475 spaces for migrants in 2010 to an astounding 3,500 last year, and many non-criminals are additionally kept inside prisons.
Yet despite the upgrades to capacity, detainees across the UK have reported poor hygiene, a lack of personal protective equipment and inadequate healthcare, increasing feelings of anxiety and insecurity against the spread of the virus. One claimant, a 60-year-old man from Russia, reported that he had no healthcare professionals providing him with any support or information, despite suffering from high blood pressure. Another detainee, 30-year-old Reshawn Davis, recounted how staff wore masks whilst failing to provide any protective clothing and hand sanitizers to the detainees or fixing non-functioning plumbing such as sink blockages. Despite ten prisoners having died of COVID-19, a whistle-blower reported a system of negligence in which staff have been required to move prisoners and detainees with close contact yet without PPE.
However, the Home Office shows little care when it comes to shielding the vulnerable as it frequently flouts its own guidance when it comes to detaining and imprisoning innocent people. ‘Adults at Risk’, the classification given to those – such as survivors of torture, trafficking and slavery, and those with physical and mental health illnesses – who are supposed to be safeguarded from detention due to the damaging impact being locked up would have on their health, often find themselves behind bars. Yet this makes the threat of COVID-19 all the more sinister. Cramming vulnerable people with health issues, including those with respiratory conditions, in dangerously close-knit environments exposes them to higher chances of catching the virus with potentially fatal consequences. It appears nothing more than an unnecessary evil and a totally avoidable catastrophe.
Yet, despite the inessential trauma endured by mostly innocent detainees, it was criminals, not immigrants, that were selected to be released, with the Ministry of Justice declaring that four thousand prisoners would be temporarily placed in outside accommodation to protect them from COVID-19.
At least one powerful legal challenge by Detention Action has fortunately seen seven hundred detainees released between 16 March and 21 April, but it hasn’t been without strife. A series of back-and-forth battles between Detention Action and the government had seen the courts originally reject the case to temporarily release migrants in March, despite reports of COVID-19 creeping into Yarl’s Wood and Brooke House IRCs and despite strong evidence that the Home Office is unable to deport people in the current climate. Detention Action did eventually successfully argue that the government is unable to detain people legally; global travel restrictions would only see detainees locked up for an unduly amount of time, meaning deportation would not fit the bill as ‘imminent’.
However, 368 people still remain behind bars while those who have been released have allegedly been ejected onto the streets with no home to go to and with no means to self-isolate.
Although the slow and eventual release of detainees indicates a temporary development in protecting the rights of migrants, the move is still far from amending the cultural hostility and ill-treatment. One report by Bail for Immigration Detainees (BID) in February highlighted a systematic negligence, exposing the substandard realities of IRCs. BID found that just three in five respondents had access to an immigration solicitor, of which only two-thirds were funded by legal aid. Some lawyers attempted to profit out of detainees’ precarious situations by making false promises to fast-track their bail application if they could pay huge sums of money ‘under the table’ while others were flatly denied the opportunity to consider bail as an option. Such unethical practices by immigration solicitors only serves to jeopardise the cases of vulnerable migrants, who become stuck in limbo, poised between the threat of removal from the country and the prospect of indefinite incarceration.
Time and time again, detention fails to deliver on its basic premise, jeopardising legal proceedings and detainees’ physical and mental wellbeing in the process. It comes as little surprise that the Home Office has been forced to pay £43m in compensation to those detained since 2011 according to leading immigration barrister, Colin Yeo.
However, change could be on the horizon. During the second reading of the Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill on 18 May in Parliament, cross-party MPs including Labour’s Nick Thomas-Symonds, Diane Abbott, Afzal Khan and Conservative David Davis tabled amendments that would see a time limit on detention for 28 days, and vigorous judicial oversight of the decision to detain. This isn’t the first time MPs have debated ending indefinite detention, and previous debates had gathered the cross-party endorsement and the support of the Select Committee on Home Affairs and the Joint Committee on Human Rights.
Mr Davis said in support of the motion: “Any situation in which the state strips people of their liberty requires the highest possible level of scrutiny and accountability. The purpose of any incarceration should be clear. Conditions and a time for release should be set.”
“The UK has a proud tradition of civil liberties and the rule of law, and it is time to honour that by bringing an end to this damaging and unjust policy”, he added.
If the COVID-19 crisis is a catalyst for change, let it be found in an upheaval of the way the UK treats migrants. Let it see the end to the callous nature of indefinite detention. It is time the UK government sees migrants for who they are: human beings, with human rights.
Before the Bill reaches its third reading at the end of June, please consider adding your voice in the call to end the UK’s hostile indefinite detention policy. To do so, contact your local MP today to express your support of a 28-day time limit for detainee. You can use this template letter for guidance